Writer in Residence

The Problem with First Books

By Nathan Whitlock

In an interview with New York magazine’s Vulture blog, comic book creator Brian K. Vaughan makes clear his feelings about his early work:

Do you go back and read many of your older books?
Oh, God, no. I now have enough distance from a lot of my work that, if I see someone bring up an X-Men issue [that I wrote] to sign, I can flip through it and it doesn’t completely feel like I’m drowning or being set on fire. But for the most part, no, I would much rather read other people’s writing than my own.

It really feels that bad with all of your old stuff?
I miss the artists and I miss that collaboration and that time, but I just see my mistakes and failings. Or worse, you see something and you’re like, Fuck, that was great — oh no, what if I peaked back in 2003? This is a nightmare! There is no good that comes from dwelling on your own stuff. You just gotta be like a shark and keep moving forward.


I think most writers have a complicated relationship with their first books. I remember saying, before my first novel was published, that I looked forward to the time when I could disown it. (I was probably thinking of how Mordecai Richler kept his first, The Acrobats, out of print for most of his life.) I was only half-kidding: what I was looking forward to was creating a body of work of sufficient quality and reach to make that first novel (which I now think of as a kind of demo tape) little more than a curiosity - for die-hard fans only. (I also wanted die-hard fans.) I’m still only two books in, with a third in the works, so that process is still waiting to happen. But I was curious about how  writers with more substantial oeuvres view their debuts. Here are some of the responses I got:


Elyse Friedman (first book: Then Again)

I never look at my first novel. I'm afraid to. I still like the premise—three estranged siblings at a reunion planned by the youngest, who has purchased their childhood home and restored it to look exactly as it used to (and hired actors to portray their dead parents)—but I’m guessing it would hurt me to see all the unnecessary tangents. Not to mention the gazillion exclamation points.


Derek McCormack (first book: Dark Rides)

I look at Dark Rides all the time. I have to: I have two hundred or so copies in my apartment. I give it away at Halloween!


Emily Schultz (first book: Black Coffee Night)

What first book? Actually, I put all my books in storage five years ago. I have a couple copies of each of my novels and my poetry collection, but I haven't seen my short story collection in a very long time. Now that you've reminded me, I do still like the title: Black Coffee Night, though the entire world thought the title was Black Coffee Nights, which sounds like a Scorpions song.


Priscila Uppal (first book: The Divine Ecomomy of Salvation)

I wrote The Divine Ecomomy of Salvation in the afternoons while studying for my Ph.D. exams in the mornings. It was published when I was 27, and I look back on it with a kind of awe that I had enough confidence to write it and that I'd already collected enough information and experiences about life to enter into the minds of characters – the nuns in particular – so clearly different from myself. I don’t reread the book, but I still give it to specific people as a gift, and I’m told it holds up, so that is satisfying.


Tony Burgess (first book: Hellmouths of Bewdley)

I tell people Hellmouths of Bewdley is juvenilia, and don't mention that I was 37 when I wrote it.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Nathan Whitlock’s award-winning fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Toronto Life, Report on Business, Flare, Fashion, Geist, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays, and he has appeared on radio and television discussing books and culture. He is a contributing editor for Quill & Quire. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children.

You can write to Nathan throughout the month of July at writer@openbooktoronto.com